Narcissist or self-hatred? Early self-esteem and adolescents’ sexual onsets

Marta Favara, University of Essex

Self-esteem has been conceptualized as “social vaccine”. The belief is that high self-esteem can inoculate people, especially young people, against vulnerability to a wide range of social illnesses. This study gives a contribution in the understanding of causal relation between self-esteem and premature sexual debut and risky sexual behaviour among American adolescents. I analyze the impact of different levels of early self-esteem on a wide set of risky sexual behaviours: premature sexual initiation, number of sexual partners, use of contraceptive methods and the risk to be diagnosed with sexual transmitted diseases. Additionally, I seek to understand whether and to what extent the relationship between self-esteem and sexual onsets varies across ethnic groups and gender. I use data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) specifically designed to study American adolescents’ health and risk behaviours. I take in account of endogeneity and reverse causality issue using instrumental variable estimation methods and measuring self-esteem before sexual initiation. The main findings of this study concern with the nonlinear effects of self-esteem on sexual outcomes and with the presence of strong gender and ethnic differences in the way that self-esteem conditioning sexual behaviour. I found that self-esteem has predominately a protective effect on female and Whites delaying first sexual intercourse and reducing the number of sexual partners. Moreover, self-confident girls more likely have protected sexual intercourses and that relation is particularly strong and relevant for Blacks. These findings suggest that self-esteem may be use as an instrument to assist young people to make prudent decisions regarding their sexuality. Interventions enhancing self-esteem may indirectly reduce the effect of negative impulses coming from deprived or instable environment where the adolescent live in.

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Presented in Session 20: Sexual and reproductive health: adolescents